October 16, 2007

Two Pianists, One Voice

By Benjamin Frandzel

You would think that Dennis Russell Davies has his hands full this October, conducting Philip Glass' Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera. But Thursday night, he headed down the street to the Herbst Theatre and lent his versatility and musicianship to a piano duo performance with his keyboard partner Maki Namekawa, in a benefit for the Other Minds Festival. Each of these formidable players is a deeply musical, probing explorer at the keyboard. The duo, formed in 2003 and based in Germany, apparently does most of its concertizing there. We're fortunate that Davies' conducting duties led to this program, for these pianists perform with energy and a flawless sense of ensemble.
Davies and Namekawa opened the program with music by the ubiquitous (at least this month) Glass, who was present to hear the duo's adaptation of six scenes from Les enfants terribles, his 1996 opera based on the Cocteau film. There is fine writing here and some lovely surprises, such as the gradually darkening, impressionistic harmonies and quality of suspended time in the second movement, "The Bedroom."

Davies and Namekawa showed an easy command of the music's motoric rhythms and deftly handled the changing textures and balances through each movement. When new motifs arose from within the music's repeating patterns, Namekawa in particular varied her tone and touch to create a feeling of surprise. Still, much of the music, especially the Overture, cries out for the third piano of Glass' original score, and six movements seems to be about the limit of this music's effectiveness in the two-piano medium.
Shining a Light on a Young Composer
The freshest music on the program came from young San Francisco composer Adam Fong. Sunlight moved propulsively from its first notes, beginning with low-register chords for Davies and high single-note lines for Namekawa. This opening set in motion a process in which the players, moving in opposite directions, gradually traversed the keyboards. Each part is full of kinetic ideas, and the quasi-indeterminate structure produced surprising harmonies and an evolving and engaging array of composite patterns.

The duo then moved to four-hands arrangements, in an exquisite performance of three selections from György Kurtág’s transcriptions of Bach chorales, Bach-Transkriptionen. Each piece was shaped beautifully, and the playing captured both the deeply spiritual nature of the music and the fine sensibility of Kurtág’s piano writing. Davies produced gorgeous, slightly blurred colors through the low-register fugal writing of the second work, "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir" (In deep need, I cry out to you). The extraordinary organlike timbres of the third selection, "O Lamm gottes, unschuldig"(O lamb of God, unsoiled), had a transporting effect. The duos unity of phrasing and shared depth of expression were exemplary.

It was exciting to have Chen Yi back in the Bay Area for the U.S. premiere of her China West Suite, a welcome addition to the composer's body of work. Drawing on folk songs of the Meng, Zang, and Miao peoples, Chen's work shows a brilliant feel for the dissonant implications of the folk music she quotes. The often rapid variations between the original material and her own extensions of it were handled seamlessly. Her approach reached a high point in the third movement, "Zang Songs," as fleet, highly decorated piano lines overlapped, grabbing fragments and flashes of the folk material amid her contemporary language. Her piano writing was both challenging and idiomatic, and Namekawa and Davies, for whom the work was written, responded with clear enjoyment.

A second U.S. premiere, also written for Davies-Namekawa, was the veteran Austrian composer Balduin Sulzer’s Dialogue for Two Pianos. This work didn't have the striking originality of much of the other music, and brought Prokofiev to mind at times with its mild dissonances and dance rhythms. But it still had much to recommend it. Namekawa revealed a wonderful palette of tone colors in the more lyrical passages, and the piece provided a showcase for the duo's keen sense of interplay and unity.

Benjamin Frandzel has written on music and the arts for a wide range of publications. He has a background as a guitarist and composer, and has collaborated with dance, theater, and visual artists.